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As soon as it was announced, eyes began rolling and the hipsters started laughing and cracking jokes about the fact that Lynyrd Skynyrd are again playing Chattanooga’s biggest music festival. “Here comes Ringgold!” “Play some Skynyrd!” has been heard a time or two in the Pickle Barrel—that well-known derogatory shout being pointed at the old land o’ cotton’s inbred, chicken-fighting culture.
Requests for Skynyrd are always shouted in the hipster arenas anytime someone wants to degrade where they come from—to shake their heads smiling and hope someone recognizes their wit and how far they’ve risen above their embarrassing roots. “Freebird!” is especially chiding—ask one of the Bohannon brothers or the folks at JJ’s Bohemia how many times they’ve heard that one. But Lynyrd Skynyrd is a hell of a rock ’n roll band. There’s never been another one like them, and the audacity with which they embraced their Southern roots was unheard of in when they first appeared. The group arose from a prevailing attitude in popular music epitomized when Billie Holiday sang:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
When Lynyrd Skynyrd arrived, the South was still being depicted as a bizarre, bloody land peopled by a race of hateful, backwoods cotton farmers. Bob Dylan sang “Oxford Town,” where everybody had “their heads bowed down” in shame. Neil Young sang “Alabama” and “Southern Man.” None of these songs named names—they pointed their finger at the entire South. Neil Young’s cross-burning “Southern Man” was every man.
Then Lynyrd Skynyrd came along. These boys didn’t give a damn—they sang “Sweet Home Alabama” and told Neil Young he should remember that a “Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” They sang “Mississippi Kid,” about having pistols in their pockets and not looking for trouble “but nobody dogs me around.” Lynyrd Skynyrd stepped up and confronted the cultural bully and made Southern folks proud to be Southern again. They meant something to a lot of people—and they gallantly warned Neil Young that “down in Alabama you can run but you sure can’t hide.”
And then, of course, there’s “Freebird”—the Southern anthem. I have a peculiar memory attached to that song.
When I was a boy I spent a lot of time running around north Georgia back roads. I rode with this man named Tim Blair. He was a rough, mean bastard that got backwoods respect everywhere he went. I was on a Kerouac kick back then and had read “On the Road” more than once. There were a few lines from the book in particular that got me close to home. “We got out of the car for air,” he wrote, “and suddenly both of us were stoned with joy to realize that in the darkness all around us was fragrant green grass and the smell of warm waters. ‘We’re in the South! We’ve left the winter!’ I took a deep breath; a locomotive howled across the darkness. I took off my shirt and exulted.”
My Kerouac obsession knew no bounds—I was too young to follow his trail all the way to New Orleans but I was following Tim Blair around to find the angel-headed hipsters that were surely beating around in my neck of the woods. But I didn’t find angels with Tim. I found yard birds picking through the dirt. He took me to indoor dog fights in bloody living rooms. I heard whispers of murders at the dog fights—of men being chopped up and fed to the hogs. I didn’t see the fruit but I saw Billie Holiday’s strange trees. I could see how the crosses could catch fire.
Those were good times, though, and there were always plenty of good dumb jokes to go around—of which I, being that perpetually shirtless, curly-haired boy with some weird book in his pocket, was often the butt—and one time they pissed me off. I told Tim what he could go do to himself and took off walking down the road, immediately expecting my ass to be stomped. But Tim laughed instead and dragged me back. He slapped the back of my head, handed me a Budweiser and told me to “Come on, you’re with us.”
One night Tim and I were drunk, riding in his truck with the radio blaring. “Freebird” had just come on. I’d heard the song a thousand times. There was something about that chorus, though—what seems like a simple love song means something strangely personal when you’re riding drunk down a dark Georgia back road and the song says: “…and this bird you’ll never change.” Tim looked over at me smiling when that famous guitar solo started up. He waved at the dark Georgia landscape and said, “This song was for us.”
Every time I hear “Freebird,” I hear Tim in my head telling me that I’m with him and this song was for us. But my old buddy probably won’t be at Riverbend to hear Freebird this year. I haven’t talked to him in a long time. The last time I saw him he didn’t recognize me—he was on the white man’s crack. He’s surely dead or in jail or somewhere between the two now.
The hipsters will be out, though. They always are. I doubt they will be going see Lynyrd Skynyrd—they will be on restaurant patios and downtown bar porches, nursing beers and playing Riverbend bingo. They’ll look up to laugh or disdainfully smirk at the passersby—those with leather boots and hair on their faces and chains attached to their billfolds. I’ll be there, too—though not with the hipsters.I gave up on hipsters when I realized Kerouac was a phoney. I’ll probably be staggering down some downtown street towards the Coca-Cola stage with booze in my back pocket and hollering “Freebird!” so those on the patios can put another beer cap on their Riverbend bingo boards.